The idea of developing a specialized tribal relations cadre took root in 1997 when a major winter storm hit North Dakota, a state with four Indian reservations. Tribal representatives expressed concerns that Indian people were not receiving equal federal assistance.
Part of the problem was the underdeveloped relationship between the tribes and FEMA. Region VIII formed the tribal relations cadre to nurture that relationship and to give tribal officials a forum.
The cadre is a group of specialists trained specifically to meet tribal needs during disaster recovery. Tribal relations specialists not only possess the program knowledge to get federal assistance to disaster victims quickly, but as registered tribal members they have unique cultural and personal insights into Indian Country.
The goal of the tribal relations cadre is to do everything possible to work with the region's 28 tribes and six states to build an efficient system of emergency management, putting the foundation in place to begin working towards building disaster resistant communities in Indian Country.
"FEMA realized there was a need to work more proactively with tribal governments and serve in a government to government relationship with tribes," said Del Brewer, a cadre member who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
"Disaster recovery always begins in the hands of local governments," Brewer said. "It's the same way with the tribes. The cadre plays the role of facilitator, to find the best way to deliver assistance using tribal resources and contacts to make sure that the tribes receive all the help to which they are entitled."
As part of the Tribal Relations program, FEMA works to share emergency response knowledge with tribes as they develop emergency management systems similar to those used in states and counties. The agency also works with reservations on historic preservation projects to ensure that Native American historic and religious sites are protected for future generations.
"We've made progress, but we have a lot of work ahead of us," Brewer said. "But we are deeply committed to doing whatever we can to level the playing field in Indian Country when it comes to emergency management."